Defining Religion



1.    What is religion?

a.    A universal dimension of human experience?

                                              i.     homo religious

b.    What constitutes religious phenomena as opposed to other kinds of phenomena?

c.    Classic Definitions (see p. 5 of Livingston)

                                              i.     Various approaches to definition and accompanying issues with each:

1.    Belief in God or gods – Martineau

a.    Issue: limited to the belief or doctrinal features of certain (theistic) traditions

2.    Focus on affective (emotional and feeling) dimensions of religious experience – Schleiermacher, Otto

a.    Issue: what about non-affective aspects of religion?

3.    Focus on morality and values – Kant

a.    Issue: what about non-moral dimensions of religion?

4.    Definitions of Philosopher John Dewey (a “quality” of experience) and Theologian Paul Tillich (a state of “being grasped by ultimate concern”)

a.    Issue: Overly inclusive.  What does not count as religion?

5.    Focus on function of religion – Freud, Marx

a.    Issue: explanatory in intent so can lead to genetic fallacy (confusing the essence, value, or truth of religion with an explanation of its origins

                                            ii.     Aspects of an adequate definition of religion:

1.    Distinctive:

a.    Distinguishes religious phenomena from other forms of cultural life and expression

b.    Avoids narrow focus on one dimension or aspect of religious life

c.    Does not confuse religion with a causal explanation of its origins or an explanation of why people are religious

2.    Generalizable:

a.    Applies to a great range of religions in different cultural contexts

b.    Avoids being provincial

                                          iii.     Is there an essence that religions have in common?

1.    Alternative way of thinking: Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblances.”  A network of overlapping similarities

d.    Definition from Clifford Geertz (American cultural anthropologist): See p. 8

                                              i.     Religions is a holistic symbolic system – a many faceted model of the world and human life

                                            ii.     That system produces an ethos:  moral feeling and behavior that is based on it

e.    Working definition of religion for the class (from Livingston and Meckel):

“Religion” refers to a group of practices, material things, experiences, stories, beliefs, and values, all of which compose a way of being in the world in relation to a sacred reality that is transformative and gives life its fullest sense and meaning.

                                              i.     The notion of the sacred: that objective reference or ultimate reality about which the religions speak (much more on this to come)

2.    Why are people religious?

a.    We are homo sapiens: sapiential, possess wisdom or rationality, self consciousness

b.    We ask questions about existence, goals, allegiance, commitments, death, suffering

c.    We reflect on all profound experiences: anxieties, fears, joys.



3.    Why study religion? (from Livingston)

a.    To understand ourselves as homo religiosus – broad range of expression

b.    To overcome ignorance

c.    To have a global perspective in a world that is “shrinking” and characterized by increasing cultural pluralism

d.    To help us think about our own religious belief or philosophy of life: comparison, exposure

4.    How shall we study religion?

a.    Religious or spiritual commitment and objectivity: are they mutually exclusive?

b.    Is the study of religion, or even the idea of religion, a threat to faith?

                                              i.     It can foster a self-critical faith

                                            ii.     Max Mueller (borrowing from Goethe): “He who knows only one, knows none”